A Man of Peace
Nale's team was heading towards their ship, collectively wondering what just happened and what to do next, when they were met by Hona and a team of Angels. She stopped them and said, "You're coming with me."
They balked at it, but she said, "We lost the attackers but we know where they're headed, and whatever you people are after, it'll be there, too," and started walking.
They looked at one another, then started to follow her.
On the way, she explained to them, "The second we disengaged, I looked up the station logs. That piece you were inspecting came from a shipment brought in by one of our deep scouting teams, and it's part of a larger find. They were going to offload the entire thing here, but one of our military installations asked them to bring the other items in for closer inspection. They're on their way there now, but they'll be making a few stops on the way, so we can catch up with them if we hurry."
"Look, far be it from me to criticize this plan, and thank you so much for getting us into the merchant's office and out of that shootout at the warehouse," Nale said, "but who are you?"
"I'm the captain of a task force."
"I'm also the one who can find whatever it is you're looking for, in exchange for some answers."
Nale shrugged, a difficult motion to make when one is walking fast. "All right. Lead on."
A while later, they were onboard an Angel ship staffed by Hona's own hand-picked crew and heading towards the unknown.
Hona had told him she'd brought his team onboard for debriefing and to ensure she could keep an eye on him, and she had asked him several questions about the item they were after, expressing her worry that it was a weapon which could be used against her people. Nale had tried to reassure her while fending off the questions the best he could, saying only that it was a specialized type of healing device that only the Sisters could operate properly. Hona had ignored his own questions for the most part, and by the time each realized they weren't going to get what they wanted from the other, the atmosphere between them had grown chilled; Hona was outright angry, Nale merely frustrated and tired. Eventually she'd let it go at that and left him to his own devices.
He'd picked up some equipment from his own ship before leaving and was now playing with it in his new quarters, sitting on his bunk and tossing an inertial ball in the air. Every time he tossed it up it would accelerate and hit the ceiling with a bang, then drop down again into his hand. It reminded him of the training camp, when things had been simpler.
The inertial ball was a metal sphere with a rubbery varnish, of the same type they'd used back at the gym. Its technology was based on the same principle as the inertial modifiers that keep spaceships from tearing themselves apart when they accelerate or decelerate at the incredible speeds they reach. Its insides were composed of gravitronic mechanisms that made the ball, once thrown in a consistent direction, continue to accelerate, so that it would hit its target at a far greater velocity than it started with. Upon impact it would immediately decelerate at a rate dependant on its contact surface; the softer the hit, the harder its internal mechanism would reverse and try to lower its impact, which meant that the few extra milliseconds it took to push into a soft-skinned surface would make for a lesser blow than if it smashed against steel.
Eventually Hona banged on his door, then walked right in. "What on earth are you doing in here?"
"Well, wait more silently."
He stared at her, getting even grumpier, then made up his mind and got up from his bunk. "Are you busy?"
"I'm making a tour of the ship," she said.
"That's a no, then. Good. You can help me practice."
"What? No. What are you talking about?"
He held the inertial towards her. "Let's go find a corridor with solid-steel backing and you can toss this at me at high speed."
She opened her mouth to say something, stopped short, looked at the ball and then back up at him, smiled an evil smile and said, "All right. Follow me."
They made their way down to the bowels of the ship and found an empty storage corridor with a nice, thick steel wall on one end. They took places on either end of the corridor, Nale right in front of the wall.
"So I just throw this at you?" Hona said.
"Any last requests?"
"I'd prefer above-belt aim, but really, it's up to you."
She threw the ball at his head. It accelerated on the way but didn't hit him, and instead clanged off the wall behind him. He picked it up and tossed it to her underarm.
"Does it have any settings?" she asked.
"There's two poles on it, one red, one green. Squeeze the ball twice, then hold down green to slow it down, red to speed it up. Press both simultaneously to turn it off for the space of one throw, hold them both down for a couple seconds and you turn it off altogether."
"Red. Right." She pressed that one a few times, then threw the ball at Nale. It missed him again.
"You know, we really are quite grateful you took us with you," he said as they kept on the exercise.
"Not much choice," she responded.
"Not to question your judgment, but how do you plan to end this?"
"We'll get to the Angel transport ship first, while our real prey flitters around and shakes off imaginary tails. Then we hang back, keep a listen on the transport, and jump in once she attacks it. She wants what's on board, so she won't destroy the ship."
"All right." Nale considered more questions, and could only come up with, "So what's Angel life like?"
He picked up the ball from a missed throw and tossed it back to her. "Really? I've met some of you guys and you always seemed more of a family."
She caught the ball, but didn't throw it again. "When did you meet Angels?" she asked.
"There was a massive industrial accident on one of your mining colonies a few months ago. A capsuleer launched missiles at it but thankfully didn't destroy the entire place. My team was doing some unrelated exercise in the area, and we were all called in. Sometimes we're the only ones who can cut through the politics and actually help people."
She sighed and gave a slight nod. "We're not the best-loved of factions."
"You don't say."
The ball whizzed at his groin, but he sidestepped it at the last minute, laughing.
"How many did you save?" she asked.
"Most of them. The missiles mostly blew up silos and processing plants that had already been vacated. But there was one framework collapse in a populated mine that left a lot of people broken or badly cut. We had to pull them out first, which has its own problems, but it all worked out. The only ones we left behind never had a chance. A dozen had been either cut in half or crushed to a pulp by falling girders well before we found their bodies. Hand getting tired?"
She'd been holding the ball in one hand, idly waving it. She switched hands and gave a toss that bounced off a side wall, slowed and landed in Nale's open hand.
"Nice try, but first surface it hits, it decelerates," he said, tossing it back. "So what are you doing here? You seem really intent on catching these guys."
"I'm only really after one of them."
She laughed, and threw the ball. It wasn't aimed at him, and hit the wall with a satisfying thunk.
"My team was tasked with finding out who's been killing our undercover recruitment agents," she said. "I was contacted by one of those agents earlier today."
"Risen from the dead?"
"Watch it," she said. "He lost his recruiting partner recently, under strange circumstances, and he himself is probably dead now."
"Strange circumstances?" he said, reminding himself that he didn't always have to try to be funny.
"They'd been recruiting on a mining colony. They were ambushed and attacked, and he escaped. We never even found the body of his partner, only some spatters of blood. The local militiae got involved and practically shut us out, too. The trail eventually grew cold and we were taken off the case with no luck in finding who did it. The survivor was reassigned, too, but he remembered everyone who was involved, and he had a particularly nasty feeling about one of the cops there. And right after you arrived he contacted me, saying that she was here, on my station."
"She? Oh. That one."
She gave him a look. "If it's escaped your notice, women sometimes do rise up the corporate ranks."
"If it's escaped your notice, I work for a faction that rather does imply the fact."
She nodded, and he added with a grin, "Though of course you're best left at home, watching the children and cooking, and serving us-OW!"
The ball finally hit its mark. She gloated at him as he gingerly rubbed his right side, then added, "Wait here," and left. She returned a little while later with a gun in her hand.
"Uh..." Nale said.
"Relax. Rubber bullets. They came with a shipment we got from Gallente merchants, and they're soddin' useless. Too much friction, too little weight. But you've been dodging the ball so easily that I might as well try this on you instead."
Nale stared at the gun for a while, then shrugged. "Okay. Tell me, at least, why you even let this woman undock. And that last toss is going to raise a welt, by the way."
"You deserve it," she said, taking careful aim and firing. Nale managed not to be in the shot's way.
"How do you do that?" she said, exasperated.
"I've got a talent for taking things in, little details. The undocking?"
"I wanted to keep it under the radar. Those guys I saw at the warehouse weren't amateurs, and I'd prefer not to risk any more of my people than I have to." Another shot, another miss. "Besides, Angel ops'd be just as likely to arrest these people, both on-station and on-ship, and as soon as they discovered the woman was a damn cop they'd probably let her go. Empire goodwill, and all the rest."
Another shot, but this time it connected with Nale's thigh. As he hopped around,yowling, she said, "I can't have that. I want to catch these people and take them out. Right before we left there was a general notice that an Angel had been killed on-station, and the initial description matches the man who contacted me. Last I knew he'd been following that witch, so I pulled in my contacts, tracked her down, and found her in the process of tearing your group apart." Another shot, a near-hit. "These people deserve no sympathy and no mercy. I don't expect you to understand."
"You being a man of peace, and all."
He sighed, and ran his hand through his hair. "Yeah. Right."
She rested the gun on her shoulder, leaned her head to one side and asked, "This is a peaceable mission you're on, right? This healing machine of yours and all."
"It's supposed to be," he said.
"Well, it's ... this machine, it can be dangerous. We're supposedly going after it because we want to prevent it from falling into the hands of people who'd misuse it."
"Who are these people?"
"My superiors say the Sansha."
"Sansha? Nale, I've met them, and I've also met the people they sometimes hire; skittish, frightened men with a terrible darkness about them. The ones at the warehouse were not Sansha agents."
"Yeah. I know. The Sansha rumors were probably spread back at our base to distract us from the real goals of the mission."
"So you're being lied to."
"Everyone is lied to."
"Oh, come on. That's simplistic pessimism."
"Is it?" A cold glint came into his eye. "When you're sitting hip-deep in blood on a mining colony, surrounded by wreckage from some capsuleer's missile, and cradling in your arms a boy who's lost his legs and can't even feel it because he's so deep in shock, do you tell him he's going to die? Or that he's going to be fine?"
"That's an extreme example-"
"So what? It happens all the time. The more you know, the less you want to know. Can you honestly say that you're a better person now that someone you know has been killed? All that evil which surrounds us, does it change anyone it touches for the good? Even if we do manage to catch up with the people presumably responsible for all those murders you mentioned, and even if we do manage to wrest the machine from them and you end up putting a bullet into their heads, is that going to make your life any better than it was back when you didn't know about any of this? This burning sense of guilt, shame and regret over not having been able to prevent something from happening, is it really preferable to just being unaware and blissful? Sometimes we need people who know what's happening and who handle it without excuse and without sharing it with the rest of us."
"Strange words coming from a Sister."
"Nobody halfway sane does this job," he said with a sigh. "It's rewarding, but it gets to you."
"No kidding. So why join?"
"Because it's right. It's the only thing that makes sense." He leaned against the wall. "Look, I didn't so much join as get recruited. But I believe in the cause, and I believe that just as man can be cruel to man, he can also be kind. Yes, sometimes we lie, or cheat, or hurt one another. Sometimes we have to deceive. It doesn't mean we're unworthy of our existence, and it certainly doesn't mean that a person can only be either a saint or a sinner. What makes you into a good person isn't the endless purity of your actions, it's their sum total, and if you can rise above your own mistakes and make something decent come of your life, you've cheated death. The marks you left on this world will outlast you, their echoes will affect other people who will then carry on the work you started, however small, and when you finally come to look into that cold blackness of eternity, you'll know that you will never truly die."
"I'm impressed," she said.
"It's nothing really deep," he said.
"No, not that. I don't think you inhaled even once during that speech."
He stared at her, then burst into laughter.
"So you think you can change the world?" she asked, a little smile creeping into her expression.
"I don't know. We all hope to, I suppose. I'd be happy if I could just dodge those damn shots properly."
"Must be hard for a leader, to think so much."
"Am I the leader?" he said.
"The others follow you. If you hadn't noticed, it probably makes you a natural. But you always find ways to torture yourself. Every mistake becomes a damnation of your abilities, and every failure something that must be corrected."
"You think so?"
"Trust me on this," she said. "Besides, why else would you keep obsessively testing yourself? It's your one failing, the thing you've latched on to, and deep inside you believe that if you could just get this one thing right, you'd feel more at ease with the rest of your life."
Nale looked at the ceiling, then closed this eyes. "I thought I was supposed to be the one with all the serenity and answers."
"Leave it to a real woman to think things through," Hona said. "They're called Sisters for a reason, you know."
He grinned, then furrowed his brow. "It's just ... we so have to get this right. Not only because we're clearly risking our lives here - I don't care about that, which I know sounds strange, but we truly have accepted our lives and their impending ends-"
"You're talking to an Angel captain. I understand, believe me, I do."
"-But it's the task we've been given. The Sisters trusted me with this, and that matters to me. The machine has great potential, I'm sure, but that's not mine to think about. All I'm concerned with is keeping it out of the hands of the wrong people."
"And the Sisters are the only right people?" she asked.
"Gods, I hope so. Because I can't think of anyone else. I need to find the Book, and I need to take it into my care, and I need to do it before that woman does. With any luck and grace, I will, and everyone will be safe."
She looked at him for a long time, then said, "I hope you're right."
He sighed. "So do I."
"Not about the machine," she said, shaking her head and holstering the gun. "About yourself."